Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Putting New Scales on One's Eyes

The mid-summer sun has been pouring down nonstop on the meadow garden, a plot in my yard with a variety of native plants and some not so native ones: false indigo, phlox, Joe-Pye weed (not really a weed), meadow sweet, cone-flower, bee balm, butterfly weed (really a milkweed, which is also not a weed, except for some), hyssop, yarrow, cup rosinweed (also not a weed, except evidently in Connecticut), rudbeckia maxima (a black-eyed Susan on steroids) several varieties of bunch grasses, nettles, meadow rue, trumpet flower and the like.  Basically green things that like to congregate in crowds of green things.

Today the sun is hot, and the honey is coming. Non-stop.  The pollinators arrive in droves; a feeding frenzy ensues..

As the meadow's perennials have rooted in over the last decade and found their respective places among their fellows (with varying degrees of guidance on my part), I've begun educating myself about the many types of pollinators coursing through this patch.  Little insights accumulate.  For instance, at first one's eye, uneducated, is caught by the obvious: big burly bumble bees dashing here and there to alight on the purple crowns of bee balm and cone-flower; or multicolored swallowtail butterflies clustering on a leafy wall of scarlet runner making its home in the nearby vegetable patch.  Polaroid moments ensue.

But then one looks again.  And again.  And notices smaller bees and wasps, flies as well, some small and quick enough that the only hint they are there is the glinting of their wings as they dive into the perianths of blossoms no larger than grains of rice.  Sometimes even smaller than a grain of rice.  It's not for nothing that botanists and entymologists come armed with a loupe when entering creation.

And so the question of scale arises. Blaise Pascale, both mathematician and philosopher, suggests that humans are poised between two scalar realities--that of the increasingly large and the increasingly small. While Pascale was intent on thinking through how either direction leads to the infinite (a mathematical concept and metaphysical category with which he was especially conversant), for the time being and the garden's sake one could simply think of  the scalar magnitudes close to the middle ground characteristic of our all too human gaze upon the face of the earth.   Plenty of wonder can already be found in this neighborhood.

And that thought brings me to the image above, taken with a Pentax DSLR 5000 as I stood in the garden earlier today surrounded by buzzing pollinators.  The picture is of a wasp, yet to be identified, in mid flight after having gathered nectar from masses of miniscule pink blossoms clotted on an umbel of Joe-Pye weed. Up this close the intricate structure of the umbel finds renewed definition in the foreground, even as one's eyes are directed slightly beyond to the hind end of that wasp, its legs hanging freely and its wings shimmering with movement.  I am particularly fond of the two antennae curved above its body, indicating where the eating and seeing end of the wasp is located.  It is as if I have entered another dimension of creaturely existence, as if the gaze of those compound eyes located under the antennae have been delivered to me. Looking about the world from the viewpoint of a wasp, I find, is exhilarating. revelatory, something both very old and very new under the sun.

Of course, I did not register any of this at the moment the scene occurred.  Only the camera through whose viewfinder I was gazing had the quickness of eye and the exactitude of memory to bring this particular world to light.  What I saw was a wasp sprawling across an umbel, crawling busily from perianth to perianth, ravishing each blossom for its nectar before moving on to the next.  And then in a blur, the wasp disappeared. When this occurred, it was only happenstance, the click of the shutter repeating itself in fast mode, that found an insect in flight.  So as natural as this scene might appear, a tool was involved in bringing it to light, a tool that helps extend the scale in which my own limited and all-too-human eyes can operate. For in this case the very quick and the fairly small were at issue, neither visited with ease by the unaided perception of homo-sapiens.

All of this brings me to two thoughts.  The first involves how the image invites its viewer to enter concretely this fetching, even magical scene.  Indeed, as I gaze at the photograph, moments from animated films, both recent and old, come to mind, in which a winged insect powers through the intricate and miniaturized world of a meadow, bringing our all-too-humans eyes along for the ride.  The scene is, I realize, culturally familiar, even beloved, copyrighted repeatedly by Disney and Pixar.  But the scene is also archetypal.  For  reaching back deep into into our history, variants are found in folk tales, as fairies, elfin creatures the right size for riding on wasps and living on the nectar of roses and lilies, are revealed to us in story if not in fact.

These old tales offer, I suspect, wisdom in their very genre.  For humans cannot move down the chain of magnitudes in order to inhabit other levels of space and time without our existence becoming strange and stranger.  A human that effortlessly rides a bee is not one whose perceptions would translate easily into my own. Part of the axis of our humanity, an orientation that keeps us in check and checked in, is revealed to be the very size and speed at and with which we exist bodily.  We can visit the scene above briefly in our imaginations and fly with the bees; but remaining there would cost us much.

The second thought is more prosaic.  It has to do with the manner in which scale bedevils all questions ecological.  How does one measure the diverse populations of species comprising an ecosystem, for instance?  Does one stop with every footstep to take an inventory?  But if so, what particular line of inquiry should these footsteps take through the ecosystem to be measured? And how far apart are the multiple pathways to be set?  Should they be arranged in a grid?  And how small or large should the mesh of that grid be? Or should the lines of inquiry follow other sorts of contours suggested by variations in topography?  And again, how small or large should the mesh be?  And even as one stops at each place where the ecosystem is to be catalogued and numbered, at what scale of size does one leave off?  Do quarks count as much molecules?  Do molecules in stones count in the same way as they do in cells?  Do cells matter as much as organisms in which they are located?  And should the stars overhead be included automatically in the inventory as well? What of all the others creatures just passing through an ecosystem on their own particular lines of inquiry?  Not to mention the differences that occur, if one's line of inquiry is performed on any given day in a particular season, as opposed to all the other days and seasons. It turns out the very diversity of scales, whether temporal or spatial, through which an ecosystem can be approached is dizzying.  Inevitably, we must decide where to draw a line and keep to it.  In doing so, we also admit implicitly that whatever we know of the living world is always necessarily a fragment and so distortion of it.  In the intricacy and diversity of its scales and their interactions, a single ecosystem transcends all hope of fully perceiving, let alone fully knowing it.

This brings me, in conclusion, to a recent email from my colleague Michael Folkoff, a physical geographer who thinks a lot about the soil and topography.  His complaint: the criterion by which topographers determine the minimum size that must be reached for a "small water body" (otherwise known as a "pond") to be recognized and counted as one has been set fairly arbitrarily.  Since topographical data is stored digitally and mapped out at a scale of 1:24,000, the USGS has decided a small water body must be at least the same size proportionally on the face of the earth as the symbol for a small water body is on a topographical map. However much space the symbol takes up at a 1:24,0000 scale becomes the deciding factor on whether a pond exists or not in the eyes of the USGS.

To decide which bodies of water are or are not ponds is an unenviable task, fraught with the complexity of competing scales noted above.  Who can blame the USGS for cutting the Gordian knot in such an efficient manner?  Yet, as Folkoff notes, "hundreds of ponds in Wicomico County alone are excluded from SWB enumeration by this standard."

How small does a body of water need to be before it ceases to be such?  Droplets on leaves, for instance, are hardly ponds and not even puddles.  They're droplets. Which leads to yet another question: How many categories of the gatherings of still waters are needed to precisely mirror the reality of an ecosystem?  How many ponds can dance on the head of a pin on a topographical map?  As a philosopher this gets me thinking: Why not construct a scalar ontology, a theory of being that does not begin by enumerating concrete or even metaphysical entities or the relations between entities but with the diversity of scales by which entities can appear and be approached in the first place?  Size does matter.  In all sorts of ways.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Blue Mountains, Lyrebirds and Stories We Tell

Lyrebird Lyrates and Filamentaries
The Blue Mountains in winter: entire forests of gum trees, their spindly limbs crowned by green mops of leaves, thrash in torrents of air scouring the landscape. One image in particular comes to mind: perched on the heights at an angle against the gusting winds, I look out over a ledge into the depths of the Jamison valley. In massive gulps, the airstream around me is stripping water off the greenery after a rainy night, stripping the water, atomizing it into mist and then scattering it over the lip of an escarpment into the country stretching below.  And there in front of me a rainbow, really rain-ribbon, or rain-serpent, materializing and evaporating and materializing again, soaring up the steep slopes from below and anchoring itself in the red sandstone cliffs opposite me.  The Blue Mountains are, if anything, a landscape of rainbows, precipices and wind.

And yet. later, hiking down the escarpments to the wooded bottom lands of the valley, I was amazed to find that terrible wind dissipating with every step, the air becoming nearly still and birdsong audible.  As if the valley below were the permanent eye of an unending hurricane raging above it.

Actually the Blue Mountains are a massive plateau eroded away in great chunks to form a series of forested canyons and valleys framed by towering escarpments.  And the lowlands are, it turns out, a great  place to encounter a lyrebird.  At least in mid-winter during their their mating season.  Belying their reputation, the birds were not at all difficult to find: the racket they make, thrashing about in the forest as they dig in the duff for insects and salamanders, unabashedly signals their presence. And they are not concerned about exiting the scene, unless the human visitor is a bit too insistent about approaching near.  And even if one cannot see a lyrebird directly, the males, perched on their hidden thrones, mounds built up of dirt and leaves to impress a cohort of mating females, fill up the forest with whistles and  throstlings, cooings and tweets, twitters and buzzings and croaks in stereophonic virtuosity.

Blue Mountain Escarpment
At one point I did approach a male to capture a better image, in fact the one appended above.  Eventually, impatient with my insistence, he flew down the slope in a power glide (this particular set of wings being not good for much else), his body configured in a blue ideogram of feathers so perfect, so unearthly, that it surely had escaped from a special effects program for high end video games. The two lyrate tail feathers, as they are termed, are held, at least during flight, curved open in a shape suggesting the musical instrument after which the bird is named.   Mating is another business altogether, according to avian ethologists, with the tail feathers directed forward so that they hover over the male's head as he struts his stuff.

This plumage is hypnotic.  To call it beautiful obscures the fact that its most powerful virtue is that of dissemblance, of shape shifting.  As the male digs incessantly into the earth in search of goodies he tilts his rear upward--this ungracious posture unleashing a furious dance of feathers in which the two chestnut brown lyrates are transformed into a pair of hyperactive snakes writhing in mid air over the earth.  The lacy filamentaries also composing the tail confuse the light around the lyrates and render the ensemble ghostly, a mixture of form and void, uncanny flesh dissipating into shimmers of airy light.  Spellbound at this sight, I can sympathize with the fidelity of the mating females to such a display.  In some part of me, I'm seduced too and prepared to stay here as this male's consort for eternity.  Surely this is Eden and this lyrebird Adam.

Given the flamboyant feathers and preternatural talent for mimicry, the lyrebird not only fascinates humans but leaves us envious.  You Tube is filled with videos showing off the capacity of this species to ape everything under the sun: from kookaburras to car alarms.  In one of these, David Attenborough encounters several, obviously not in the wild (of this fact he is not forthcoming: see Hollis Taylor's blog on this issue), that can mimic camera clicks, the buzz of chain saws and men working nearby.. But this fascination with a captive bird's talent for simulation leaves me wondering: Why is the capacity in a living creature to duplicate the sound of a fire alarm so noteworthy?

Lyrebird Habitat in the Jamison Valley
To this question I have a hopeful and not so hopeful answer. I'll start with the hopeful and more subtle point first.  In giving voice to click of camera and whirring of electric-motored film advance, the captive lyrebird transforms the inert noises permeating his surroundings into something rich and strange. This power of living things to transcend the merely mechanical and efficacious has recently been christened "biosemiosis."  In this term one registers how the very stuff of life, from our genetic coding on up, involves the expression and reception of signs among the living kinds, as well as within the bodies of every living kind. The entirety of creation it turns out is full of messages in search of reception, which is to say, full of storytelling.  And so I am thankful for the closeup in Attenborough's video of the captive lyrebird's beak, as an electrical whirring emanates forth from its gifted voicebox: in my very hearing, a mechanical sound, an intricate, human-made contraption of moving metal and plastic gears, finds a renewed and uncanny dwelling place in living flesh of another living kind.  In this reverberation of a vibration, it turns out, something more than mere efficacy, the chief virtue of technological existence, emerges.  The camera leaves its imprint on the lyrebird's hearing not as machinery but as encounter, not as redundancy but as creative opportunity.  

But that very closeup is also distressing, particularly given Attenborough's condescending take on the moment. It is a matter of the story, after all.  And the story Attenborough tells and enacts is one of a huckster:  "Look at this," his tone intimates. "Ain't it grand?"  But is this the story worthy of a species 15 million years upon the face of the earth, one whose forebears, unlike our own, are part of the very strata of the continents? Rather than questioning the process by which the vocabulary of a lyrebird is overtaken by the sounds of cameras, car alarms and buzz saws, the fact is simply sketched out as an elaborate joke, a trick.  This exchange of bird and human here is just one step up from trick dolphins jumping through hoops and elephants balancing on each other's backs.  Of course, what is different is that the lyrebird comes to this trick voluntarily via its own practices.  But the circumstances of those practices are not voluntary at all: he has been confined to a cage.  And this question haunts me:  Why is the mimicking of machinery so noteworthy in a living being?  And listening again to it, I realize this: This bird no longer is my Adam; his power to seduce these human ears has been reduced to one that amuses.  
The Three Sisters
Other stories, it should be noted, are told of the lyrebird, including stories by peoples who were willing to follow for tens of thousands of years the lines of song laid down by a living kind across country.  The Gundungurra people, for instance, who own the stories of what we whitefellows call the Jamison Valley, have something quite different than Attenborough to say about the lyrebird and its mimicry.  But their stories are for the most part kept alive and cared for, when they have not been annihilated by colonial violence, in the closed circles of their keepers.

Still one story might be told, a story that was falsely attributed to the Grundungurra and was actually authored by a whitefellow schoolgirl by the name of Patricia Stone. Her tale involves three sisters who are transformed into stone by their father, a powerful cleverman, to save them from a bunyip, a terrifying creature who lurks in the waters waiting to feast upon anything that comes by, particularly women and children. Angered at the daughters' transformation, the bunyip chases the father, until cornered, he transforms himself into a lyrebird with the same magic bone he had used upon his daughters.  And then, to his dismay, he discovers the bone has been lost.

If a whitefellow is to tell a story about country, this is perhaps not a bad start.  And it leaves its audience with important questions to chew upon. Why, for instance, does the clever man turn his daughters to stone, even as he chooses a lyrebird for his own moment of shape shifting? Parents, in protecting their children, can go too far and with tragic results. Yet by throwing rocks heedlessly from the cliff top (which is what initially alerts the bunyip to their presence), the daughters themselves are implicated in their petrification due to their own thoughtlessness. And there is the issue of that magic bone.  It is powerful but also limited in its efficacy. And it can simply be misplaced.  The contours of the real emerge here in an intricate interplay of themes and forces:  the ferocity of love, the carelessness of  youth, the outbreak of elemental violence, the limited means of wisdom and and the fragility of human power.   In the face of the bunyip's hungry maw the cleverman chooses song over blood letting.  Shakespeare would be pleased.

But what most intrigues me today is the cleverman's decision to become a lyrebird.  The ways in which humans find themselves affirmed in the lyrebird, even as the lyrebird finds its peculiar talents affirmed in human beings is worthy of more than a little thought. As I hear it, the telling of this metamorphosis, of man to lyrebird, gives words to the mystery of language itself. For words clarify the meanings of things, as the act of naming calls forth reality and reality calls forth naming. And like the lyrebird, are not humans in the business of singing their existence in borrowed song?  We clothe ourselves, both in body and in thought with the skins and voices of all the other living kinds. When all is said and done, we are made of words.  If a human is to become another animal, certainly becoming a lyrebird makes a lot of sense.  Thank you Patricia Stone for this thought.